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By Anthony Tan
It was a sprint finish of feverish intensity, usually only reserved for the Tour de France.
And it led to an unexpected victor in Greg Henderson of Team Sky, who in a downhill run just happened to win in a style that resembled the final stage of last year’s Grande Boucle.
“Oh mate, honestly, it doesn’t get any better,” said Henderson in typical Kiwi twang. “We were joking about it in the (hotel) room (before) – we said: ‘The best way to get Team Sky on the map is the very, very first race we get together, we end up winning the bike race.’
“And that just happened tonight … it’s just unbelievable … The lead-out was just so fast — I don’t think I’ve been on the back of anything faster – and in the end, my job was pretty easy. I just followed (Chris) Sutton and the rest of the fellas and … oh mate, what an amazing feeling.”
Henderson, André Greipel, Baden Cooke, Robbie McEwen, Gert Steegmans, Robert Förster, Robbie Hunter, Jonathan Cantwell, Allan Davis, Graeme Brown, Chris Sutton — absent Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, Alessandro Petacchi and Thor Hushovd, just about any sprinter who was anyone lined up 4:15 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Adelaide’s Rymill Park.
The 30-lap, 51km opener known as the Cancer Council Helpline Classic may not have counted towards the overall classification of the 2010 Santos Tour Down Under, but you wouldn’t have known it. Because with numerous rider transfers, a handful of new teams and a few changes of team names, just about everyone had a point to prove in the first ProTour race of the season.
The furious finale came down to the new team on the block, Team Sky, which has been very much talking the talk of late, versus the winningest team of the 2009 season, HTC-Columbia, which throughout last year walked the walk to more than 100 major wins.
At the start of the penultimate lap of 1.7km, HTC-Columbia had all its men on the front, looking to continue where they left off. But shortly after, a bevy of men in black and blue crashed the party, kicked out the original members and left them on the sidewalk, Great Britain’s Russell Downing appearing to be the ringleader.
Sky’s Matthew Hayman then took over on the bell lap, executing a monster turn if ever there was one. Then Davide Vigano began turning himself inside out at the front. But HTC weren’t done yet as Marcel Sieberg interrupted proceedings.
However, it was all too brief. As Sky’s Sutton led out his New Zealand teammate Henderson with complete power and precision, one couldn’t help being overcome by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu from the final stage of last year’s Tour de France — the last time two other Anglophones , Cavendish and Mark Renshaw, did exactly the same thing and made a mockery of their rivals on the Champs-Élysées.
Recalled Henderson: “We all formed together about two, two and a half (laps) to go and then I was on the back. I just yelled ‘yes!’ as loud as I could and it went down the line — ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ — like we practiced in training. And when the boys lit it up, it was like, ‘ooh, we’re going …’ — it was just so fast.”
HTC-Columbia tried to challenge down the back straight, Henderson said. “But we just had too much horsepower left. Matt Goss actually snuck in the middle of our lead-out, which actually ended up helping us.”
It was a host of usual suspects who rounded out the top seven: McEwen (Katusha), Greipel (HTC-Columbia), Cooke (Saxo Bank), Brown (Rabobank) and Davis (Astana). Last year’s Tour Down Under champion was clearly left wanting, shell-shocked at the speed of the lead-out train from this hatchling British outfit.
“They started the lead-out on the last lap, around the back straight there. The speed was so high we just couldn’t move out of the wheels. …” said Davis. “Once we came round the corner there in the last 200 (meters), I tried to sort of get a little bit of a run-up on them. I got into a big headwind — there was a big headwind in the final straight up there – and there was just no chance today.”
No. 11 has a big dig
While there seemed to be a few fans short of the utter madness that ensued last year when Lance Armstrong made his comeback after what he called a “three-and-a-half year vacation,” crowds still appeared to be five to seven deep around the 1.7km criterium circuit on wide-open roads.
Three laps in saw the first serious move by Garmin-Transitions’ Cameron Meyer and David Vitoria of Footon-Servetto-Fuji, who, judging from what the latter wore, looked like he was trying to make a fashion statement — a very bad fashion statement. That lasted a good five circuits or so, the 49 kph average for the first 15 laps allowing some to get away but none to stay.
Then, no more than two laps later, a RadioShack rider sporting dossard No.11 jumped in a five-man move: it was none other than Armstrong himself.
Joining him were 2006 Tour champ Oscar Pereiro (Astana), Mikael Cherel (Française des Jeux), Mathieu Perget (Caisse d’Epargne) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas). Last year, Armstrong said he was just “trying to stay on his bike, believe or not.” This year, he was doing a lot more than that and clearly the strongest in the move, turning over the 53×11 with enviable ease when drilling it on the front.
“I don’t know, I certainly felt better today than last year,” Armstrong mused, “but last year in this event I felt a little like a monkey screwing a football, too. It was not pretty last year.
“I felt liked I tested (the peloton) a little bit, and certainly felt more comfortable in the race. We had a few good weeks in Hawaii, so I know I’ve got a bit of power, but sometimes it’s better to be up on those small groups than to be back fighting with 100 guys for every wheel and every corner. It’s harder up there, but a little safer.”
However, having first shed Cherel and Perget soon after, the power of three was not enough against the ravenous peloton, consuming the remnants a trio of circuits from the finish.
And then, as if from the heavens above, came Team Sky.